“…do your characters take on a life of their own, so a story veers off in an unexpected direction? Do characters say and do unexpected things? And how do you keep track of everything and everyone...?"
There are a number questions there and a number of answers to all of them (when aren’t there?) but they are all about temperament. And not of the character, but of the author.
Some authors plot out an entire book before they write it. They have an index card for each character with every detail of the their life. Birthday, education, family. Height, weight, eye colour. Their place in the family, and a whole lot of complicated stuff involving personality traits.
The main character arcs will be described and there will be different coloured post-it notes plastering their office wall (or bedroom door) for each scene (and a lot of other stuff that I don’t know about.) They will laugh to scorn the idea that a character can take over and run with a story.
How I envy those authors. How comforting it must be to have everything plotted out. To just turn up each morning, consult the notes, write the day’s quota of words and then go and have some fun. And if you believe that I've got a nice bridge I can sell you.
Okay, maybe some people can do that. Some of the time. (James Patterson, maybe?)
I’ve tried it.
I’ve spent hours working on lengthy outlines – I’ve never got as far as the post-it notes (because you need an outline before you can move up to that). Sadly, the finished book bears about as much similarity to the plan as a pineapple to a pear. They’re both fruit, but that’s all you can say about them. Worse, on those rare occasions when I’ve written a perfectly realized plot summary I lose interest in writing the book. Why would I bother when I know what’s going to happen?
While I do sometimes begin with a place, an image that sparks an idea, romance is character led and that is the place to start. With a character, a stranger who will keep me on my toes, thrill me, charm me, infuriate me, delight me. And with motivation.
She will have a driving passion, or be sideswiped by a moment of change that disrupts the even tenor of her life. It’s not about plotting moves, shifting characters about, it’s about cause and effect. Real people reacting the way real people do. Irrationally. Stupidly. Their heart and soul engaged.
How do I know what my heroine will do until her hero turns up and turns her life upside down. She will grow, she will learn, she will change over the course of her story, in unpredictable ways.
So do characters do surprising stuff?
Well, yes and no. (It’s amazing how that is so often the answer in writing!) Sometimes I find myself typing dialogue that appears to come out of the blue, explaining so much about the inner conflict, motivation of a character, but as we go on this journey together, I get to know her, get under her skin, get to the tender, unprotected heart she keeps hidden.
That moment of truth doesn’t come out of a black hole, no matter how much it may feel like it at times. I have to admit, though, that when it happens it does feel like magic.
So that’s how it goes. The characters, their story, develop as I write. If one of those out-of-blue moments mean that I have to go back and fix something, I do it there and then. I can’t move on until I’ve got that straight. I’m not a dirty drafter. I can’t bash out the raw story. I constantly rewrite, changing, fixing stuff as the story develops and. when I get the last line, I’m done.
And how do I keep track of everything without those index cards and post-it notes, or even notebooks filled with ideas? (My notebooks are mostly filled with facts, scribbled research notes, useful urls and are never going to be snapped up by a library’s archivist.)
This is deeply scary, but the truth is that I hold everything in my head, which explains why, at the end of the day, I often feel as if my brain is too full for my skull.
It’s not a comfortable way to write, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone and this next bit comes under the don’t-do-what-I-do, do-what-I-say, heading. Go for the detailed outline and the post it notes if you can manage it. Organised. Sensible. No panic. You have a plan and you tick off the scenes as you go.
Productive authors, the ones who leave you gasping at their output, mostly — but not invariably — use this method.
But it isn’t a black and white, one way to the other, scenario.
Most authors use a combination of the two, fine fettled to suit their own way of working. Some have scenes in their head. Glimpses of the journey they are about to take. That’s me. Some write an outline that they feel free to abandon without a backward glance. Sometimes that’s me, too. Occasionally I forced myself to write down the major points that are essential to the story; usually when I’m struggling. It helps to focus the mind.
I’ll find them, weeks later, when I’ve finished and I’m clearing up the mess of research books and CDs and bits of paper I’ve scribbled words on. I’ll look at it and think, Was that what I was going to do? Oh, well…
The thing is — and I’d like you to say this out loud now — there is no right or wrong way.
Don’t waste energy trying to fit into a box invented by someone who has written a book of rules (it’s probably the only book they ever wrote).
And out loud again — there are no rules.
Okay, one rule — I do insist on the proper use of apostrophes and any mistakes in my blogs are because they are written in a hurry in time stolen from writing my books, and not because I don’t know my ’s from my s’.
Just get your character on the page, set her in motion and — if you’re lucky — you’ll have to run to keep up.